Why Nakba is a catastrophe for Britain | Jon Stanley
There has throughout Britain’s history been an unwritten rule in our political discourse. We are not supposed to mention the war to the Germans, we are not meant to talk about Northern Ireland and discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict is always more trouble than it is worth.
I happen to disagree on all fronts, because I reject and always will reject the idea of popular history. There is no British or Irish or Arab or German or Jewish history. There is history, to be interrogated and studied and commented on coldly. As with so much of identity politics there is an increasing overfocus on some perspectives of history. There is an oppressor and oppressed and for many history is not something to be studied but rewritten, rehashed, presented with a modern twist.
We are told that we must be very sensitive to historical events, and to be very sensitive to those affected by historical events. No we must not, if anything we have to be a lot less sensitive and disinterested in how we study conflicts so they do not continue to gather a mythos of their own.
To communicate ideas we need language. The more common, simple, even coarse, the better. For the Western world this has meant either we use our own languages to describe events or we use a lingua franca such as Greek to name a cluster of events. We do so for context and to aid a discussion. They are often capitalized to highlight a definite article, a specific cluster of events.
The World Wars, the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Enlightenment, the Reconquista, Detente, the Interbellum. In our country, in our language, these have specific meanings. They are history.
The Holocaust is a Greek word that means “everything burned” which is gruesome but accurate to describe the mass murder of millions of Jews in World War Two. Those who commemorate are at pains to explain it as part of the organized murder of Roma, homosexuals, socialists as well as the contemporaneous slaughter of millions of non-Jewish Poles and Soviet citizens.
There is nothing divisive about the Holocaust. It was perpetrated for the express purpose of extinguishing the Jews in Europe.
Jews also use the word Shoah and as survivors of the Holocaust it is for them to describe history as they experienced it. I would not use it. I have no need to. I have no Jewish identity nor affiliation to any Jewish organisation. It’s not me. I can describe these events using my own language or an established lingua franca. That is the convention.
In recent years a small number of radical left activists have made much effort to refer to the events of 1948 in the Middle East as “the Nakba” which is the Arabic word for catastrophe. It describes the events surrounding the founding of the State of Israel. It was certainly a turbulent time.
This was 1947-49. It was turbulent everywhere. The explusion of 700,000 Arabs from the former Mandate of Palestine was no doubt a catastrophe for them. No doubt too the expulsion of 12 million Germans from the newly reformed Poland, against the wishes of the then Polish Prime Minister who believed it was better to re-integrate them. So too the population transfers within Central Europe, from Germany to Siberia, from Korea to Japan, between India and Pakistan.
For all of these people life events in that time was a personal catastrophe. The creation of Poland was not a Catastrophe, capitalized. If a German political party arose that said so it would ring alarm bells. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not a Catastrophe capitalized. While we celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland, no we do NOT call the Anglo-Irish treaty and a Republic of Ireland a Catastrophe even though those events brought personal catastrophe to many. Nation states have the right to exist. When a vacuum develops, as in Mandatory Palestine or where internal conflicts cannot be resolved, as in British India, new nations are born. Their birth is almost always traumatic.
Whenever historical events, and especially ongoing conflicts are described by outside commentators using local languages there is an agenda. Better people are open about it. When a British, far left, commentator refers to Israel’s founding as the Catastrophe and then goes on to say this is how Palestinians describe it, I smell a rat. The delegitimisation of Israel is an industry. It is by its nature antisemitic in denying Jews a homeland that every other nation has.
This is why Nakba is a catastrophe for Britain. It deliberately lenses the painful events of 1947-49 into a polarised attack on Israel’s right to exist. That is disgusting. There are reasons many Palestinian Arabs feel this way and they are from direct experience. We do not share these experiences. We are more than capable of describing all of these events, including the Palestinian Exodus as it is known in English, without saying Israel has no right to exist.
I am neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian. I do not need to be either and in truth both peoples have beautiful culture and disgusting history. It is not difficult to be appalled by the PLO who waged war in Jordan and Lebanon as well as fighting for, eventually, a Palestinian state. Nor is it difficult to find expansion of existing and development of new settlements in West Bank as cynical exploitation of a frozen peace process. Nor the slaughter of civilians in Shabbra and Shatila refugee camps and the use of false British and New Zealand passports by Israeli forces as crimes against the rules based order of our post 45 world.
If I were pro-Israeli it would be easiest to ignore last week’s attack on their diplomat. It plays well to the crowd back home. It reinforces the idea Israel simply has to fight to survive. If I were pro-Palestinian I’d ask myself what hope is there for a Palestinian state without an Israel one can live at peace with? The most egregious part of this industry is that whether it is using words like Nadka, or wearing a Keffiyeh made in a Chinese sweatshop ( they almost all are ) or lensing their pain to attack Israel is that this industry is the archetypal case of cultural appropriation. It is a cynical excuse to attack Israel and yes, the Jews. The days and years where British commentators discussed a viable Palestinian state are gone.
This is a pity. We used to be a diplomatic centre for brokering peace. The conflicts of the Balkans are centuries old, and they slaughtered over 100,000 even in my lifetime. I saw on the TV bodies pushed into mass graves by bulldozers, and a few years later a grudging peace was signed by sides killing each other. There is a grumbling political crisis in Northern Ireland. There is, however, peace.
To those who cry out that everything is hopeless, one side is evil and that 700,000 refugees cannot be forgotten or denied, shame on you bottom feeding scavengers. This was a time when most of the continent was in a refugee crisis. New nations formed, others expanded, and crucially, peace was broken and reparations paid for us all to move on.
In this sense the Middle East conflict is less unique and much more unfinished. It is important we discuss the conflict because it is in our interest to have peace generally. Having a radicalised, angry population, even if small in number, isn’t good for us. We must not import it though. Many migrants and their children, including those at LSE will have an opinion on the Middle East conflict but part of integration and mutual respect in our country, so often demanded, is that we all curb our enthusiasm.
It may stir passions to become involved in one way or another but frankly, beyond facilitating talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, this is none of our business. It borders on the colonial to think otherwise, or antisemitic. I’ll leave that distinction to others. Palestine as a concept stopped being our business in 1948. Given that was what was considered by all parties concerned, I’d rather keep it that way.
So long as Israelis, or for that matter Palestinians, are attacked in this country on the back of rhetoric and hate mongering, please do expect pushback in the most polite of terms. Nakba is not British, and in the context of British political debate it is anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic. The historic facts and pains of the Palestinian Exodus are well documented and regretted, as are the pains of all those for whom 1948 was a personal catastrophe.
I am, of course, pro-British. The incitement of anti-Israel violence comes from a long history of tolerating dog whistle, baiting language of the far left here. That it happened at the LSE is something Captain Blackadder could crack a sardonic joke about.